Media “reformers” drunk on Clayton’s tonic: How to be seen to be doing something while not doing much at all

Well Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has finally let the skinny, de-clawed and highly-stressed cat out of the bag. This week he has announced a raft of media reforms that will be introduced into Parliament in a series of piecemeal bills designed not to offend anyone.

Australian print and online news organisations will continue to be self-regulated through voluntary membership of a press standards body, which is likely to be the tame-cat and toothless Australian Press Council.

The announced reforms are the government’s official response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry into the media in Australia. But the proposals are watered down, wishy-washy and look like something the cat dragged in.

Watered down Finkelstein is no change

Among the proposals is the creation of Public Interest Media Advocate, who would oversee mergers and acquisitions of news organisations, and a new Public Interest Test to ensure that diversity of voices is considered when mergers take place.

Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, said news organisations that join up to a press standards body will be rewarded with a special exemption from certain sections of the Privacy Act.

A press release issued by Senator Conroy’s office said the reforms include:

  • A press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of the print and online news media.
  • The introduction of a Public Interest Test to ensure diversity considerations are taken into account for nationally significant media mergers and acquisitions.
  • Modernising the ABC and SBS charters to reflect their online and digital activities.
  • Supporting community television services following digital switchover by providing them a permanent allocation of a portion of Channel A.
  • Making permanent the 50% reduction in the licence fees paid by commercial television broadcasters, conditional on the broadcast of an additional 1490 hours of Australian content by 2015.

The government will also convene a new parliamentary committee to consider abolition of the 75% reach rule, which puts limits on the proportion of the population one network can reach.

My initial response is that, as a package of changes supposed to lift the standards of Australian journalism it’s appalling and ridiculously weak.

Calling for stronger self-regulation is an oxymoron, it doesn’t make sense. Either you have self-regulation or you don’t. How is this different from what the Australian Press Council is already doing?

On the exemption from the privacy legislation – these news organisation already get that. Bona fide news gathering is already exempt from some provisions of the Privacy Act, so it’s not like this is hugely new.

One thing that could happen would be if there is tighter regulation in the form of a mandated body that news organisations have to join is that bloggers and freelancers and citizen journalists would most likely not able to prove they are legitimate news gatherers. If you are not employed by one of the big news organisations, you would no longer be covered by that exemption from the Privacy Act.

At the moment, the exemption is for legitimate news-gathering activities and there is no specification that it only applies to professional journalists.

On the SBS and ABC charters, let’s see what they come up with;though they already have internal policies to deal with social media.

The allocation of a permanent channel for community television is fantastic. It’s 20 years overdue. We already have some community stations but they are not permanent. They have been temporary licenses since they started in the 70s.

There is very little of Finkelstein in here and that was always going to be the case. Anything Finkelstein has in his initial recommendations got watered down by the Convergence Review anyway.

Finkelstein was calling for a super press council that was publicly funded and for legislation to beef-up the Press Council’s standards.

The abolition of the 75% rule has been on the cards for a long time anyway. It is meaningless to argue that broadcast organisations should only be able to cover 3/4 of the national market. Channel Nine in Darwin, Perth, Brisbane or Oodnadatta is still Channel Nine and now that there is streaming and view-on-demand from the Internet, there is saturation coverage.

this package is really not much more than a slight rewarming of what exists with a bit of tinkering around the edges. I agree with Terry Flew’s analysis on The Conversation. Nothing here addresses the fundamental disconnect–what I call the “techno-legal time-gap”–that has beset policy wonks for the past decade or so.

As Terry Flew says this is analogue thinking to deal with seemingly intractable digital problems. It is “media reform lite”.

This package of measures is hardly the “new policy and regulatory framework” the Convergence Review believed was the necessary response to technological and audience changes rendering the existing legislative framework redundant.

Yes, the new policy recommends changes to media ownership, news standards, public broadcasting and Australian and local content that are largely with the convergence review recommendations, but these still largely sit within the established media “silos” of print, broadcasting and online media.

More radical proposals, such as setting content standards for Google, or eliminating broadcasting licences altogether, are clearly off the agenda.

Terry Flew, “Low-key Conroy proposals are media reform lite”, The Conversation 13 March, 2013

A public interest test? Really?

The public interest, simply defined, is the maintenance of the general social welfare of the population. There is general agreement that the public interest is operationalized as an alignment of social policy with ‘a common concern among citizens in the management and affairs of local, state, and national government’ (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2008).

The concept of a public interest is an aspect of the social contract philosophy articulated in the 18th century by the great bourgeois thinkers of the day. The principle also relies on an argument about the ‘greater good’, ‘in essence asking that we put aside individual differences for the benefit of the best outcome’ (Sjovaag, 2010, p. 879).

Journalists and editors make a strong claim to be representative of the public interest and acting for the greater good in almost everything they do; it is particularly effective in the pursuit of corruption or malpractice by government and business leaders. But how do journalists and editors know what is in the public’s interest? It is not that easy to pin down the public interest in practice. The fourth estate role of the press requires it to be a critical (but not too critical) and loyal opposition.

This tension is well expressed in relation to government-funded broadcasters like the BBC, but it is evident in all major news media outlets. The ideology of professionalism requires the public interest to be defined through the eyes of the State. In this regard, the news media’s critical role is constrained by the ideological need for it to be esteemed as ‘a bulwark of the national interest’ and ‘a voice of the established political and social order’ (Frost, Hutchings, Miazhavich, & Nickels, 2011, p. 224).

Daniel Hallin (1989) has provided one of the most robust critiques of media complicity in substituting State and national interest for a broader definition of the public. He called it the sphere of consensus and limited controversy. There are core ideological beliefs that lie beyond challenge and then an agreed radius of allowable criticism that should never extend to an attack on the consensus ideals.

The Overton Window

Hallin’s idea is resurfacing today, but in some discussions it is referred to as the ‘Overton Window’ after the political scientist James Overton who first described it. Definitions of the Overton Window are remarkably similar to Hallin’s spheres of consensus and limited controversy:

for any political issue, there’s a range of socially acceptable positions that’s narrower than the range of possible positions. Positions within the Overton window are seen as mainstream and uncontroversial, while those outside it are viewed as shocking, upsetting, and dangerously radical. (Lee, 2011)

Daniel Hallin defines consensus and limited controversy in very similar terms:

Within this [consensus] region journalists do not feel compelled to offer competing views [and] play an essentially conservative, legitimizing role…Beyond [consensus] lies what can be called the sphere of legitimate controversy…where objective journalism reigns supreme…Beyond [legitimate controversy] lies those political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard. (Hallin, 1994, pp. 53-54)

The public interest is problematic, not just because it is linked to the much narrower State interest of the ruling elites; it is problematic because defining exactly what ‘the public’ is has never been easy. In fact it is the media that helps to define the public in ways that suit its own needs, not necessarily those of the public interest.

The ‘public’ is often reduced to ‘an inchoate mass’ in media representation (Coleman & Ross, 2010, p. 5); alternatively, the public interest is assumed to be the same as the interest of the consumer in the marketplace and not constructed around the real social relations that actually link individuals into communities of interest.

The public is defined as if it is monolithic when clearly it is not; it is measured by opinion polls and surveys that attempt to generalise about the public mood. Ultimately it is ideologically constructed to marginalise dissident voices.

The working class is the real public interest

In a capitalist world this means individuals or groups who do not measure up to the normative standards arrived at through polling techniques or media construction can be ‘justifiably marginalised and excluded’ from public discussion (Coleman & Ross, 2010, p. 31). The public interest is not really knowable to most journalists; rather its existence is assumed and then reified into a normative ideological construct that justifies the status quo.

The real public interest-which will NEVER be realised in terms of this media reform package-is that of the absolute majority of the population bound by something they have in common.

It is the economic and social interests of the working class, formed on the basis of their common position as exploited labour within capitalist relations of production.

But that is the kind of revolutionary talk that sends the likes of Chris Mitchell and Andrew Bolt into fits of apoplexy.

Glad to be of service fellas.

Coleman, S., & Ross, K. (2010). The public and the media: “Them” and “Us” in media discourse. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Frost, C., Hutchings, S., Miazhavich, G., & Nickels, H. (2011). Between impartiality and ideology: the BBC’s paradoxical remit and the case of Islam-related television news. Journalism Studies, 12(2), 221-238. doi: 10.1080/1461670X.2010.507934

Hallin, D. C. (1989). The “uncensord war”: The media and Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hallin, D. C. (1994). We keep America on top of the world. London; New York: Routledge.

Lee, A. (2011). Moving the Overton Window.  Retrieved from

Sjovaag, H. (2010). The reciprocity of journalism’s social contract: The political-philosophical foundations of journalistic ideology. Journalism Studies, 11(6874-888). doi: 10.1080/14616701003644044

West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. (Ed.) (2008).

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